Community Rallies Around Cancer Survivor

Originally published May 14, 2014

Toni Petersen beat breast cancer, but her victory came with a high price—one much larger than she could have possibly imagined.Following her initial diagnosis in May 2012, the East Quogue resident endured a mastectomy and multiple rounds of chemotherapy at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Commack over the next six months. A fighter, Ms. Petersen would not allow the disease rob her of watching her daughter, Bethany Hallman, graduate from the University of North Carolina that May and, the following month, get married.

Ms. Petersen finished her chemotherapy in January 2013 and went into remission four months later—a medical term meaning that she was now “cancer-free,” according to her doctors. All she needed to do was go in for regular check-ups and have her blood drawn from time to time.

It was not until she was planning a trip to North Carolina, to visit her daughter and first grandson, Christopher James, or “C.J.,” in mid-February of this year that she had a gut feeling that something was wrong. “I felt fine,” she explained, noting that she had just thrown herself a 60th birthday party on February 20. But though she was not scheduled to have her blood drawn for another three months, Ms. Petersen decided to have it tested once more before heading south.

It turned out her feeling was right.

Her white blood cell platelets were “in the toilet” and, on February 25, she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, a rare form of the disease that can be contracted through chemotherapy and can take up to eight years to surface, according to http://www.cancer.org, the website for the American Cancer Society. Typically, those between 45 and 66 are prone to contracting the disease, and it is diagnosed in one out of every 278 women, according to the same website. Experts believe that chemotherapy drugs with alkylating antineoplastic and platinum agents increase a patient’s risk of contracting the disease.

The cancer attacks the blood and bone marrow where blood cells are made, and one way to treat the disease is with a bone marrow transplant. The treatment method of choice depends on a patient’s age, overall health and subtype of the disease.

In Ms. Petersen’s case, a bone marrow transplant is the only option. Currently, she is receiving consolidation therapy treatments, a post-remission therapy that focuses on destroying the remaining leukemia cells, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan while she awaits a bone marrow transplant.

“It’s a long, hard road with this,” Ms. Petersen said of her ongoing treatments, “but you don’t have a choice.”

She does not know how many potential matches are out there. Donors are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a perfect match. Doctors have tentatively scheduled her transplant for June though, as of earlier this week, they still had not found a suitable match.

And that’s where her home parish, the Eastport Bible Church, is stepping in. Parishioners are teaming up with the folks at Delete Blood Cancer, an international bone marrow donor group that organizes bone marrow screenings in both the United States and Europe, to host a “Doing It For Toni” screening this Sunday, May 18, at their house of worship, located at 386 Montauk Highway in Eastport. The event runs from noon until 6 p.m. and those interested in participating can just stop in at the church between those hours.

“It’s got my name on it, but, really, it’s for everybody,” Ms. Petersen said this week from her hospital bed in Manhattan. “You never know who’s going to be a match.”

Those who sign up will have the inside of their cheek swabbed and have their DNA entered into a national database, according to organizers. In order to participate, donors must be between the ages of 18 and 55 and weigh more than 110 pounds. Additional health requirements can be found on the website http://www.deletebloodcancer.org.

After her treatment last week, Ms. Petersen was transported from Sloan Kettering to the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge Jerome L. Greene Family Center, a facility that provides free care for patients undergoing cancer treatments in New York City. Ms. Petersen’s condition puts her at a high risk for infection or illness, so she said she needs to be as close to the hospital as possible until her transplant is completed.

Still, she hopes to be able to attend Sunday’s bone marrow screening in Eastport to thank those who are offering their help. She said her faith and the church community have helped her tremendously in recent months, along with the support of her family, including her husband, Charlie.

At home, she leads a “Comforters Ministry” at the Eastport Bible Church, a group that meets once a month to lend support to its members. Senior Pastor Charles Young said since she took over the group two years ago, the feedback has been very positive.

“She’s incredible,” Pastor Young said. “My wife and I have benefited just from her friendship.”

He explained that while he and his wife were visiting their son out of the country, Ms. Petersen planned and oversaw the makeover of their home on the church property.

While he cannot be screened Sunday because of his age, Pastor Young, who is 62, said he intends to shave his head to show his support of Ms. Petersen.

Ms. Petersen is known by her friends and family as a free spirit. While receiving her most recent round of chemotherapy treatments, she randomly decided one day to “I.V. pole dance” down the hallway of the hospital to cheer up the other patients staying at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“You get down, but you have to bring yourself back up,” she said. “God works in incredible ways.”

To pass the time, Ms. Petersen said she often chats, with the assistance of Skype, with her daughter and grandson in North Carolina. “I think these beautiful things are happening in my life, even though I have to go through this battle,” Ms. Petersen said of her family.

She also has some advice for those who suddenly find themselves in a similar situation, namely those who survive one difficult battle only to be met with another.

“It’s very important to have faith,” Ms. Petersen said. “We can’t change the situation—we can only work with it. You can’t run away from cancer.”